Unforgivable Love: A Retelling of Dangerous Liaisons
- By Sophfronia Scott
- William Morrow Paperbacks
- 528 pp.
- Reviewed by ReLynn Vaughn
- November 1, 2017
This vivid re-imagining of the classic French tragedy unfolds in post-WWII Harlem.
Readers of Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos know the story ends in tragedy for almost everyone involved. Those same readers, therefore, might approach Sophfronia Scott’s retelling, Unforgivable Love, with a sense of foreboding.
Or not approach it at all.
That would be a mistake. Beauty can be found in even the most wrenching tragedies, and Scott’s prose weaves a compelling and intricate world, updating the “Dangerous Liaisons” story by setting it among the wealthy and notorious of post-WWII Harlem’s African-American social set. Scott moves her book away from the purely epistolary style of the original, allowing us a deeper look into the lives and motivations of her characters.
The Marquise de Merteuil becomes Mae Malveaux, the jaded and conniving heiress to a haircare-products fortune. The lothario Vicomte de Valmont finds new life in Valiant Jackson, whose businesses, legal and less so, fund his fascinations with both baseball and sexual conquests around Harlem.
Scott gives Mae and Val rich backgrounds, providing the reader a window into their souls and why they’re willing to play amoral games. Even at their very worst, their most unlikable, the reader finds cause for sympathy. Their actions are abhorrent but, at their base, human.
Scott also gives voice to the women Val seeks to conquer in furtherance of those games. Elizabeth Townsend takes on the role of Madame de Tourvel. The devoted and devout wife of a prominent civil rights attorney away on a case, at her heart, Elizabeth is a woman who has grown weary of playing no greater role than that of the perfect accessory for her perfect husband. She longs for a true purpose, desperate for something to make her feel useful.
And Cecile de Volanges is reborn as Cecily Vaughn, Mae’s sheltered young cousin whose mother has dragged her back to Harlem from her aunt’s home in the South. Cecily experiences an awakening that begins down in Anselm and continues over the novel’s long, hot New York summer, making her ripe for Val’s plucking.
Scott’s world-building goes beyond successfully transitioning her characters. While other adaptions of the source material have simply set the characters in the affluent circles of any era, Scott’s choice of 1947 echoes the original novel, which came out just before the French Revolution. Scott’s Harlem has pockets of wealth, but also poverty and unrest.
Elizabeth volunteers at her church’s soup kitchen and immerses herself in Ann Petry’s The Street, a novel about a single mother beaten down by her circumstances. Val’s love of baseball deepens with Jackie Robinson’s integration of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and his character arc follows his beloved team’s run for the World Series. Elizabeth’s husband, Kyle, fights for civil rights in the South, but the real danger lays back at home. Change is coming, and the first stirrings move the characters like the minor tremors before a great earthquake.
Even Scott’s choice of songs mentioned in the work adds to its feel. While slightly anachronistic (it wasn’t released until 1948, a year after the novel is set), eden abhez’s “Nature Boy” haunts the novel with its refrain, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn/Is just to love and be loved in return.” The extent to which the characters embrace that lesson drives their fates.
Scott’s writing evokes a long, hot, humid summer. Describing Cecily’s experience down South with her aunt, Scott writes, “Sometimes Cecily felt a hunger so keen it seemed like a void had scraped her stomach raw like she had never properly filled it — didn’t even know what it was to be filled.”
In fact, the biggest issue with the novel is that, at times, Scott’s writing is too lush, too detailed, slowing the narrative in places to a languid crawl. At those points, the reader may lay the work aside for a while to escape the heat.
Scott succeeds in showing us that the roots of her source material — jealousy, love, betrayal, and vengeance — transcend time and place. That one character may contain elements of the best and worst of what makes us human. While both Mae and Val are complicit in their game of manipulation and seduction, Val does the heavy lifting in harming their victims. Without him, Mae loses much of her power.
And, yet, when his comeuppance arrives, I mourned his character most of all. Not a hero, nor a true villain, he is memorialized in the end as a complicated and flawed man who tried to set things right. His climactic act allows Scott to give her story a tone of hope that the original lacked.
Unforgivable Love will appeal both to fans of Laclos’ original novel and to those who haven’t read his work. Scott’s sophomore effort weaves a tale of the best and worst humans can do to one another and leaves readers hungry for more, even if what is promised is heartbreak.
ReLynn Vaughn studied history, criminology, law, and education before coming back to her love of storytelling. When not working in college student services, she writes fiction for both adult and young-adult audiences. She currently makes her home in the horse country of central Kentucky with her husband, their two cats, and more books than she can count.